For decades now, older feminists have been griping about young women. They take their rights for granted. They don’t feel sisterhood. They’re not politically active. Now comes SlutWalk, taking the world by storm, with boisterous demonstrations of young women protesting sexual violence and the way victims are blamed for it. Starting off in Toronto, where a police officer told law students at York University that if they wished to avoid rape they shouldn’t “dress like sluts,” these grassroots protests, featuring thousands of women dressed in everything from lingerie to sweatpants, have been held in more than seventy-six cities in Canada, the United States, Europe and beyond; there have been SlutWalks in Mexico (sign in Morelia: My Tiny Skirt Does Not Make Me an Easy Woman), and one is planned for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Here at last is that bold, original, do-it-yourself protest movement we’ve been waiting for, a rock-hard wall of female solidarity—an attack on one is an attack on all!—presented as media-savvy street theater that connects the personal and the political and is as fresh as the latest political scandal.
And what do older feminists say? Frankly, I expected a lot more griping. Naturally, there was some, most vigorously from the antiporn scholar Gail Dines (Pornland), who sees SlutWalkers as man-pleasers embracing a false Girls Gone Wild “empowerment.” But mostly, feminists of all ages are cheering from the sidelines. Apparently feminists have a sense of humor after all and grasp the concepts of irony, parody and appropriation. Further proof that the evergreen narrative about feminist generation wars tends to fade away whenever feminists actually get out and do something.
Much of the media criticism of SlutWalk centers around the notion that its central purpose is to reclaim the word “slut.” I have my doubts that “slut” is ever going to be a compliment, since its history has always been negative and associated with uncleanness, whether literal or figurative (originally, a slut was a dirty kitchen maid). But who knows? Political struggles have affected language in unexpected ways before: “queer” and “gay,” once slang, are now standard; “black” used to be crude and “negro” and “colored” polite; “redneck,” once dismissive, is now a badge of pride; “kike” may be unredeemable, but there’s a Jewish magazine called Heeb. Maybe someday people will get it through their heads that sexually active females are not demons, morons, destroyers of men or fair game for rapists, and “slut” will either fade from the language or mean something else, like “woman who sleeps with people she wants to sleep with, and only those people.”
In any case, redeeming the word is a side issue. What matters is the central message: rape is not the victim’s fault. What she wears. What she drinks. How late she stays out. If she’s on a date. Walkers aren’t saying, “Please call me a slut, big boy”; they’re saying, “I am Spartacus”—the molested hotel worker, the murdered prostitute, the student whose rapist is protected by her college because he’s a star athlete. Even more, they are attacking the very division of women into good girls and bad ones, madonnas and whores. Don’t be misled by the fishnet stockings and miniskirts. These women are making a radical challenge to foundational ideas about women’s sexuality—and men’s.